Power to the People: the Black Panther and the Pre-Digital Age of Radical Media

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It seemed impossible to curate an issue about political publications without evoking the 11 years of publishing The Black Panther. Jane Rhodes tells us about its story, its role in the Black struggle for liberation, and how it came to be the most widely read Black newspaper in the United States.

Rhodes Funambulist2
Reading the Black Panther paper at Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, California. / Photo by Ruth-Marion Baruch.

Before there was Twitter, before there was Instagram, before there was Facebook, before digital platforms were the main sources of communication for protest movements, there was print. Cheap, disposable, easily reproduced, and passed along by hand instead of electronic pathways. Basic technologies were required for production — the pen, typewriter, mimeograph machine, printing press. But nothing was required for reception except literacy. From the birth of the Black press in 1823 to the 21st century, print media have been an essential tool for the Black freedom struggle across the globe.

The Black Panther newspaper, founded in 1967, was one of the most influential among them. The cultural material of today’s protest movements, from the image of the clenched black fist to the slogan “All Power to the People,” were first circulated by The Black Panther and have sustained their potency as symbols of resistance and rage.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense erupted from the cacophony of crisis and protest in the late-1960s — the successes and failures of the Southern Civil Rights movement, persistent segregation and discrimination in the urban North, the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and growing international solidarities among the aggrieved. A small group of young radical Black activists led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale gathered in Oakland, California to create a hybrid movement.

They borrowed the title “Black Panther Party” and the image of the snarling black cat from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration campaign in Alabama. Their bold manifesto — later called the “Ten Point Platform” — took a page from the demands published by the Nation of Islam. They found inspiration from the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, global Black nationalism, and anti-colonial movements. Required reading included Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (1964). Producing a periodical was part of the ethos of the day and the Panthers were destined to become part of radical print culture aiming to cultivate a counterpublic beyond the reach of mainstream media.